Chekhov is bustin’ out all over. Aaron Posner is working on a new Three Sisters after contorting The Seagull into Stupid F**king Bird. Christopher Durang has excelled with his Chekhov-inspired Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike. And then there are the film versions. Now the Three Day Hangover theater company presents its own fun-and games-with-vodka in a kind of Chekhov for Dummies and Drunks–their version: Drunkle Vanya, a Drinking Play for Horrible People. The venue is, of course, a cozy bar, the Tolstoy’s Lounge upstairs at the Russian Samovar restaurant on W. 52nd Street.
I felt prepared to at least follow this adaptation of Chekhov’s plots of unrequited love, existential ramblings and complaints of life. I had an inkling by its very name that this production was intended to be hilariously contemporary and youthful. What I was not prepared for was its sheer joy at relishing its own inventive and imaginative zest. Lori Wolter Hudson, director and adapter, has masterfully made it so modern audiences can encounter poor old Uncle Vanya and his circumstances and feel no pain.
Audience members choose (by ticket price) their preferred seating according to Russian social strata. Upper classes sit in comfortable chairs and can feast on the Russian Samovar’s delicacies and lots of drinks during the performance. The proletariat, including this hard-working reviewer, are seated at a small bar and are permitted one and only one shot of vodka–unless you are chosen to participate in one of the many games of the evening.
So as the audience enters the theater they are given name tag stickers that resemble playing cards. On them is printed a word or silly convoluted phrase. The games begin with a young and very boisterous Vanya (Joel Rainwater) introducing himself as the evening’s emcee and explaining the drinking rules of this alcohol-inspired immersive experience. (We must accept youthfulness in this production where the kids have fun with booze and games.) At each character’s near cathartic moment, the dialogue ends with the word “blank”. A chorus of “Family meeting!” from actors and audience alike signals the start of a game.
Audience members are selected and their name cards read out. The winning audience member gets–a shot of vodka!
Vanya and his sister Sonya (Leah Walsh) have lived on and maintained his brother-in-law’s estate for years. That same brother-in-law, a tyrannical professor, (a gangly enfant terrible, Sean Tarrant) has now come to live on the estate with his beautiful, young and alluringly aloof wife, Yelena, (the seductive Amanda Sykes). She, in true Chekhovian spirit, has suppressed her passion with the façade of boredom. Everyone is attracted to her, including Vanya and his friend, Dr. Astrov (the enthusiastically flippant Christopher Tocco). Astrov in turn is Sonya’s object of infatuation but he is drawn to Yelena and encourages her to unleash her sexual passion. (Still following?) For this playful theater company, that maze of attractions is displayed in a game of Twister, an unashamed contemporary display of Chekhov’s more subtle sexual suppression. Even with such unconcealed moments, we can detect Chekhov’s recurring themes of unrequited love, suppressed sexuality, boredom and egotism.
Those preoccupations get a youthful boost with frisky insouciance, a very “whatever” attitude accentuated with drinking games.
Alas none of the drinking games really enhance the poignant moments in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Oh well, we didn’t come to see his version of Uncle Vanya but to be enraptured by a youthful “drunkle” Vanya, and to have fun making fun of neurotic, horrible people. Na zdorovie, you crazy kids!